16 Jan Ahmedabad: The Power of Labeling
We turn our attention closer to home and discuss if Ahmedabad is a successful city.
If one looks at the pronouncements of international development agencies there is little to doubt. Ahmedabad is one of the most dynamic cities in India with 5 percent of the national population but 14 percent of its export, an average annual growth rate of 9 percent and industrial growth rate of 15 percent. Every few months there are presentations about the city and visiting delegations extol the multiplication of municipal revenues and the successful launch of municipal bonds. Rating agencies swoon and investors salivate over the prospects.
And yet, within a few miles of the forums where such presentations are made one can also listen to civil rights groups showing photographs and statistics and narrating stories that can churn the stomach and make one sick with despair. One can read announcements from international human rights organizations that can make one lose faith in humanity.
So, is Ahmedabad a successful city?
Clearly, both processes are going on at the same time and one’s verdict would depend on which dimension is given more weight. This, as they say, is a value judgment.
But this also brings us to the power of labeling. The accolades of the international development agencies carry a lot more clout than the protests of civil rights groups and so, to all intents and purposes, Ahmedabad is a successful city. When the leaders of Ahmedabad and India see this global verdict propagated they feel little need to pay attention to that other dimension that is relegated to an inconvenient footnote.
This demonstrates the power of labeling. Imagine that international development agencies were to say that livability conditions would be a factor in lending and rating agencies were to refuse to rate cities with particularly egregious excesses against human rights. What do you think the response of the leaders of a city like Ahmedabad would be if a minimal attainment of human rights became necessary for doing business?
For a concrete example, recall the 1994 plague in Surat, not too far from Ahmedabad. Because the global tourism industry let its negative ratings of India be made public, there was an immediate response not just by the city and the state but by the national government as well. For a while, Surat was even reputed to have become the cleanest city in India.
Consider also the fact that imposing minimal conditions for doing business is not an impractical or utopian idea. There are industries where consumers have had enough impact to eliminate manufacturing in sweatshops and the use of child labor. And there were instances where college students were able to generate enough awareness of human rights to force global corporations to divest their interests in South Africa under apartheid.
So why does a social plague that repeatedly kills more people in one city than a medical plague in another continue to have no impact? Because the power of labeling that deems Ahmedabad a successful city allows business as usual to continue and because activists have failed to effectively mobilize global attention to their cause.
Rates of economic growth continue to trump fates of human beings.
Does this make sense?